Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so. Her blond-streaked hair is piled high, exposing two little diamond earrings on each ear lobe; her face is fully made-up, down to carefully applied lip liner. The BABY PHAT logo of Spears' pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts — with dark blue piping — cling snugly to her hips. She cocks her head and smiles receptively.
But hold on. It's not like that. You're falling into the same trap as the lovelorn youths who call Spears' local florist to send her long-stemmed roses and the randy fellows outside the MTV studios with prom invites scrawled on their chests. Admittedly, that trap is carefully baited by a debut video that shows the seventeen-year-old singer cavorting around like the naughtiest of schoolgirls. But, as Spears points out, nothing is actually revealed.
"All I did was tie up my shirt!" she says, addressing the critics who would hunt her down like a gay Teletubby. "I'm wearing a sports bra under it. Sure, I'm wearing thigh-highs, but kids wear those — –it's the style. Have you seen MTV — all those girls in thongs?"
Spears' left thigh is presently adorned by several small plastic discs that are wired to a neuromuscular stimulator. A dance rehearsal accident has temporarily confined Spears to her parents' ranch-style house in rural-burban Kentwood, Louisiana, when she should be out promoting her white-hot debut, ... Baby One More Time, 1999's biggest-selling pop album so far. Staying home has its compensations: As Spears holds forth, her mom, Lynne, a second-grade teacher, sits on the carpet in the wood-paneled living room, fluffing and folding the laundry. If it weren't for the diamond-laden tennis bracelet that Britney just bought her, you'd think her daughter was a vacationing college kid and not a pop sensation with an eleventh-grade education.
The song that put Spears on top is a strutting statement of intent called "...Baby One More Time" — –and that ellipsis tells a tale. The three dots mask a chorus hook line — "Hit me, baby" — –that some have taken as a masochistic come-on. "It doesn't mean physically hit me," says Spears. "It means just give me a sign, basically. I think it's kind of funny that people would actually think that's what it meant."
Perhaps the linguistic confusion arises from the fact that the creative force behind "...Baby One More Time" is the Swedish Ikea-pop maestro Max Martin, who is also behind Backstreet Boys and Robyn. As cowriter and co-producer on the record, Martin would run lyrics past Britney, ten years his junior, for approval. "I asked them to change the words to 'Born to Make You Happy.' It was a sexual song," reveals Spears, who cleaves to the Baptist faith, I said, 'This may be a little old for me.' Because of the image thing, I don't want to go over the top. If I come out being Miss Prima Donna, that wouldn't be smart. I want to have a place to grow."
1960. Elvis has been kidnapped by Uncle Sam. Buddy Holly is dead, and Little Richard has found the Lord. Into the vacuum rises a counterrevolutionary force of adenoidal adolescents like Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. These pop puppets, with their Tin Pan Ailey songs and Sta-Brite smiles, actually managed to neutralize rock & roll's threat for several years.
It's happening again. Welcome to the new Teen Age. In a distant demographic echo of the postwar baby boom, the American teen population has reached the kind of critical mass that makes the culture industry sit up and listen. Teen spending power is reshaping pop culture, filling our TV screens with teen dramas and our multiplexes with teen movies. It has also put a perky new beat on the pop charts, where the devotional vaporings of boy bands have vanquished the roiling rock angst of the early to mid-Nineties.
'N Sync, Backstreet Boys and 98 are now choking on dust from the high-steppin' heels of Miss Britney Spears. Spears, who shares a manager with 'N Sync and a label with Backstreet Boys, screamed off the production line early this year and became the first solo artist of the Sound-Scan era to lodge a debut single and album atop the charts simultaneously, in the album's first week of release.
But for all the fan-mag prose that greeted Spears' explosive marketplace entry, we know precious little about her beyond an image that hints at several stereotypes. Is Spears bubblegum jailbait, jaded crossover diva or malleable Stepford teen? Who knows? Whether by design or not, the queen of America's new Teen Age is a distinctly modern anomaly: the anonymous superstar.
Lynne spears is issuing crisp directions to the family's home in Kentwood, an hour north of New Orleans. "Turn off Highway 55..." says the husky-voiced Louisiana native, "then onto 51... turn right when you pass the Burning Bush."
The Burning Bush? A bar? Restaurant? Strip club?
"No, it's an actual bush that's burning in our neighbor's yard. You can't miss it."
Such religious portent is fitting, for, in record-industry terms at least, Britney Jean Spears is a golden child — –the chart-topping apotheosis of a generation that's breathing life into an imperiled business. MTV VJ Carson Daly is intimately acquainted with the habits of teenagers — not just through dating the newly twenty-year-old scream queen Jennifer Love Hewitt but via his stewardship of the station's afternoon call-in and e-mail show, Total Request Live. "Teens don't have an attention span anymore," says Daly, 25. "They just want to feel good for those four minutes, then go hit the Internet. They don't want to take things too seriously, and they wanna move –tempo is everything. Britney is a poster child for them."
Being a generational mascot brings with it certain responsibilities. "You want to be a good example for kids out there and not do something stupid," Spears says. "Kids have low self-esteem, and then the peer pressures come and they go into a wrong crowd. That's when all the bad stuff starts happening, drugs and stuff. I think if they find something that keeps them happy — –writing, drawing, anything like that — –then they'll have confidence."
Spears, who won her first talent show when she was six, sounds more middle-aged than teenage as she delivers this brisk message. Doesn't she think that people her age are struggling with self-esteem because of a torrent of media images that promote feelings of inadequacy? Spears thinks about this for a moment. "When people see things on TV that they can't do," she ventures, "that should make them want to go out there and make something of themselves. That's how I looked at it."
The very first low, aching "Ooh bay-by bay-by" that Britney Spears whispered into the public's ear strongly suggested that this wasn't your average seventeen-year-old. It's still hard to equate those salacious syllables with the basketball-playing, churchgoing schoolkid who would travel an hour to shop at her nearest Abercrombie and Fitch. As Max Martin says, "People like the song and then they see the video and it's like, 'Fuck!'"
You can see that kid in the family photographs and Britney-bilia that dominate the walls of the Spears household. Nestled among them — –near the picture of Britney with Ed McMahon from her Star Search performance, in 1992 — is a picture of the star with her prom date, a gangly youth wearing moccasins with his dress pants. This is Reg, Britney's only boyfriend, with whom she had a two-year relationship. It came to an end when the strains of her budding career began to take their toll.
"It wasn't that I was changing," says Spears. "We broke up before any of my success had happened. He became insecure with himself, I felt. I wasn't gonna do anything — I'm a straight-up, honest person, and if I was gonna do something, I'd tell him before I'd do it and end the relationship. I was really head over heels in love. I don't think I'll ever love somebody like that again.... I just woke up one day and click, it was gone." Spears shrugs off the rumors linking her with both Lance Bass and Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync. "Overseas they say it's Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys," she notes wryly. Right now, she says, she prefers to concentrate on her work rather than romance. "I have," she says, "no feelings at all."
Despite her position as Queen of Teen, Spears does not fully endorse the current wealth of youthful movies that her friends flock to. "Party movies," she calls them. She prefers Kleenex-intensive fodder like Stepmom and Steel Magnolias. She reads Cosmopolitan.
She used to follow Dawson's Creek, but she finds that regular habits like television watching and churchgoing are impossible to maintain on the road. Spears does pray nightly, however, and she catches random bits of TV. She has seen one episode of South Park, which she found "sacrilegious." Tonight, the opening titles of Felicity appear on the family television as she talks. The show is a touch too neurotic for Spears' tastes.
The Spears' house itself resembles a sitcom set, with several neighbors and relatives making unannounced cameos. Britney's eight-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn, drags a broom into the middle of the floor and treats everyone to a spirited reading of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" — the version from Annie, not Jay-Z's hip-hop revision. Above the kid's head, on top of the TV cabinet, is a forest of trophies. Many represent the athletic feats of Jamie Lynn's big brother, Bryan, now twenty-one, but most were won by Britney at talent shows and gymnastics meets (that's Britney back-flipping in the "...Baby One More Time" video).
As Mrs. Spears dishes out portions of a neighbor's Mississippi mud pie, Britney quietly listens to one of Felicity's soliloquies. "Isn't she breathtaking? So cute!" Britney says. She met the show's star, Keri Russell, when they were Mouseketeers together.
The Britney Spears Phenomenon is no overnight creation. Even before she tasted the hard-knock life of children's talent shows, Spears was preparing for greatness. From age two she would hog the family bathroom, singing passionately into a hairbrush. "I was in my own world," she says. She made her stage debut at five, singing "What Child Is This" at her kindergarten graduation. "I found out what I'm supposed to do at an early age," she explains.
"She was always singing — she would never hush," coos Britney's mom, a diminutive forty-three-year-old with large brown eyes. Kinesiology student Bryan Spears remembers his sister dancing in front of the TV, trilling Madonna's "Like a Prayer." "It was very annoying," he confirms.
Before she was ten, Spears had pretty much nailed the talent-show racket. "Those little competitions got really old," she says. At age eight she impressed judges at an open call for the Disney Channel's revival of the Mickey Mouse Club, but she was deemed too young for the show. So she did TV ads and an off-Broadway play, Ruthless, attending New York's storied Professional Performing Arts School for three summers. Then, finally, came a two-season Mouseketeer stint in Orlando, where Spears palled around with Russell and future 'N Sync members JC Chasez and Timberlake.
In contrast to most child-performer scenarios, it was Spears who got her parents to set up the Mickey Mouse audition. Jeff Fenster, Jive Records' senior vice president of A&R, who signed Spears, was quite surprised when he saw the family dynamic at work. "Her parents were not pushing her at all," he says. In other words, Britney Spears is her own stage mother.
Upon the show's cancellation, Spears handed back her mouse ears and returned to Kentwood, enrolling at the private Park Lane school in nearby McComb, Mississippi. Park Lane's rules felt stuffy, and Spears' fellow pupils seemed, frankly, a bit provincial. "Remember that opening scene in Clueless with all the cliques? That's what it was like," says Spears, who made friends with cheerleaders and burnouts alike.
Britney Spears is well-regarded in Kentwood, a close-knit community of 2,600 where one can feel like a Satanist just for living in the wrong ZIP code. A local high school has a sign outside: DRIVE CAREFULLY, LIVE PRAYERFULLY. "Pretty much everybody here likes her," says Kentwood High student Lucas Thornton, 17. "When I went down to Mardi Gras, I had a Kentwood jacket on, and lots of people were asking did I know her."
Spears' ticket out of Kentwood arrived when music-business lawyer Larry Rudolph got her — in timeless showbiz style — an audition for Fenster. "It's very rare to hear someone that age who can deliver emotional content and commercial appeal," says Fenster of his first impressions.
There was more. "For any artist, the motivation — –the 'eye of the tiger' — –is extremely important," says Fenster. "And Britney had that. This is clearly a self-motivating person from a very young age."
From the second that Jive heard Britney Spears' first sessions with appointed producer-writer Eric Foster White, her fate was sealed. The singer's development deal was ramped up to a recording contract, and Jive began the kind of capital-intensive promo blitz more commonly associated with new products from Disney or Coca-Cola.
First came the Britney Web site, e-mail address and 800 number, advertised on several hundred thousand postcards. In summer 1998, about six months before she released her record, Spears performed at twenty-six malls across the country, schlepping with her two dancers and multiple costume changes. The outing was underwritten by leading teen magazines — Spears was signing autographs before she had ever been on the radio.
The Britney Spears cross-promotional bandwagon rolled on with a Sunglass Hut tie-in, a Tommy Hilfiger modeling gig and a warm-up slot on 'N Sync's tour. When ... Baby One More Time was finally released, the hidden track was Britney flacking for label mates Backstreet Boys.
Impressive though Jive's promotional effort is, the company lays much of the credit for its success at the feet of the talent. "I have never seen an artist so focused on what she needed to do," says Kim Kaiman, Jive's marketing director. On Spears' mall tour, for instance, Kaiman was astonished at the way her charge cheerfully embraced grueling promo duties at retail chains and radio stations. "One of the reasons that radio fell in love with her is that she's so very Southern, so sweet and gracious," says Kaiman. "And that's really warming to a programmer's heart."
According to Spears, the record that was subsequently delivered to those pliant programmers was not quite what she had envisaged. She had vaguely imagined herself singing "Sheryl Crow music, but younger — more adult contemporary," she says. Spears, however, is happy that she went along with Jive's choice of high-gloss producers and writers. "It made more sense to go pop, because I can dance to it — it's more me."
When it came time to make a promo clip for ... Baby One More Time, Spears had to show that her Southern conviviality had its limits. Jive had hired on video director Joseph Khan, whose concept reached the storyboard stage be-fore Spears spoke up. "They had this really bizarre video idea, this animated Power Ranger-y thing," she explains. "I said, 'This is not right. If you want me to reach four-year-olds, then OK, but if you want me to reach my age group ...' So I had this idea where we're in school and bored out of our minds, and we have Catholic uniforms on. And I said, 'Why don't we have knee-highs and tie the shirts up to give it a little attitude?' — so it wouldn't be boring and cheesy." The seventeen-year-old won the day, and the rest is chart history.
Britney Spears sits in her Mom's kitchen, holding an ice pack on her knee as she sips her morning coffee. Her hair is down but not messy. Hot rollers have been dutifully applied; makeup and jewelry are in place. The knee is feeling a little better, but Spears is growing impatient with her local physicians. They don't seem to understand that she's got a new video to make.
Spears hobbles out of her kitchen and down a photo-lined hallway to her old bedroom. "It's a girly room," she warns. To say the least. The tiny space, like the rest of the house, is awash in floral patterns and frills; throw cushions cover every square inch not colonized by an impressive collection of pale-faced dolls, from porcelain models to squishy plastic specimens. "I knew this would happen!" says Spears in mild exasperation. Her little sister has been trying to fashion one doll's hair into dreadlocks.
For Spears, these dolls, like Mom's abiding ban on long-distance phone calls, are reminders of an earlier life. She has no intention of going back.
The next step forward is today's trip to New Orleans, where Spears will be attended by a physical therapist from the Saints football team. While she's there, this self-confessed bad driver may test-drive a soft-curved, new model BMW like the one in her next video, for the demure "Sometimes."
Spears' highway to heaven has not been without speed bumps. First there was the threatened lawsuit against her from a man claiming to be her former manager (the case was resolved out of court). A more serious threat comes from fans who have figured out where Spears lives. Alone in the house one night, she hid from a prowler lurking at the window; her mother surprised another as he was hailing to her through a locked bedroom window. Britney's father, a construction contractor, has been forced to work in Memphis due to a slump in the Louisiana economy; Britney has taken to sleeping in her mother's bed.
Lynne Spears walks through the kitchen's French doors and into a hug from her daughter. The pair speculate about the zit that has appeared on Britney's nose. The singer nonetheless implores her mother to whip up a grilled cheese sandwich. "You go into a hotel and you'll have grilled cheeses, but they're not like your mama's," says Spears as she scarfs down the butter –fried snack. In between bites, she dips chips into a hot cheese sauce.
Brother Bryan rolls up, lugging a giant bag of boiled crawfish. He and his fiancee, Blaze, have promised to take Britney to a New Orleans bar that has a built-in waterfall. (Long before she was in the public eye, she used to tag along on drinking trips with her brother and his friends, with fake ID in hand.) "What about me? Can't I come, too?" asks Lynne Spears, pouting in mock disappointment. "Of course you can!" say the kids.
"I know how to drink," says Britney. "Me and my mom will have a glass of wine together, and that's fine. Kids are gonna drink, and the more you say, 'Don't do it,' the more they're gonna want to do it." She has, she confesses, never been inebriated. "I stop before that happens. I just sit there and go all quiet, because I hate to lose control."
Control freaks often make good pop stars, and Britney Spears is not lacking in that department. Anyway, a prosperous debut year is practically guaranteed by ... Baby One More Time, which is front-loaded with hits in several pop genres. The Max Martin tracks should come with a free insulin shot, and Eric Foster White's songs are not for the lactose intolerant ("E-mail My Heart"?), but Spears sure sells the heck out of her material. Hearing a Britney Spears song for the first time is oddly comforting, like finding a Starbucks in a strange town. Spears' record company will be disappointed if U.S. sales don't break 4 million.
For teenage tyros like Britney Spears, though, it's the sophomore year that sorts out the Boyz II Men from the New Kids. As Carson Daly says, "The loyalty factor with teens is dangerous. As quickly as they came, they will leave. But Britney should make enough money this year to not have to worry about what the teens do a year from now."
There would seem to be a finite number of available story lines for Spears. She could find gainful employment in stage musicals, as did Debbie Gibson, or even denounce pop altogether and reincarnate herself like a vengeful Alanis Morissette. Then there's Tiffany, the teen-pop sensation whose name is now synonymous with anonymous.
The way Jeff Fenster sees it, Spears has already outgrown such archetypes. "I think she's got the opportunity to become someone who combines the best elements of Madonna in terms of versatility with the serious singers she looks up to: the Whitney Houstons and Celine Dions."
Spears fancies the Madonna model, praising the singer as a "smart businesswoman" and expressing a desire to shape her own career. To date, Spears has co-authored one B side, and she often leaves fragments ofsongs on her answering machine. She sums up her own ambition with chilling simplicity: "I want to be big all around the world."
Whatever Britney Spears ends up "growing into," she stands today as the latest model of a classic product: the unneurotic pop star who performs her duties with vaudevillian pluck and spokesmodel charm. As Spears herself says, "It's not supposed to be in-depth — –that doesn't mean I haven't worked really hard."
Then again, if you're standing in some bar ten years hence and "... Baby One More Time" comes on the jukebox, you will smile. And you will move.
It looks like ephemeral pop might even be around in ten years' time. According to one estimate, the U.S. teen population is set to rise, in the next decade, from 29 million to 36 million. In other words, resistance is futile. Teenagers are driving our culture – and they won't be giving the keys back any time soon.